What has impressed me most about the Criterion Collection over the years is how the company strives to do more than just provide viewers with copies of films. They endeavor to honor the art and craft of filmmaking by offering features that showcase the work and the people responsible for it. Some releases are so comprehensive they come across as miniature independent study courses. Stanley Kubrick's 'The Killing', his third feature as a director, is indicative of Criterion's thoroughness, because the inclusion of his second feature 'Killer's Kiss' allows viewers to see his growth and maturation as an artist.
'The Killing' was the first in a trio of films where Kubrick worked with producer James B. Harris. Their partnership also produced 'Paths of Glory' and 'Lolita' with Kubrick stepping away in between to direct 'Spartacus' at Kirk Douglas' request after original director Anthony Mann was fired after the first week of shooting. 'The Killing' is an adaptation of Lionel White's crime novel "Clean Break" with Kubrick and author Jim Thompson working on the script, though Thompson is given the odd credit of "Additional Dialogue By".
The film introduces a number of guys down on their luck in Los Angeles. Randy (Ted de Corsia) is a cop who owes money to a loan shark. George (Elisha Cook Jr.) is a racetrack cashier and a henpecked husband whose bored wife Sherry (Marie Windor) nags at him, but she's not completely bored as she's seeing Val (Vince Edwards) on the side, a guy who only has time for her when he has time for her. Mike (Joe Sawyer) is a bartender at the track and has to deal with a sick wife.
The ringleader of the operation is Johnny (Sterling Hayden). He's been in jail the past five years, but he has a plan to rob the racetrack and start a new life with his girl Fay (Coleen Gray). It also requires he hire a couple of guys to help create diversions. Nikki (Timothy Carey, doing what appears to be a Kirk Douglas imitation from the way he clenches his jaw) is a sharpshooter stationed outside the track and Maurice (wrestler Kola Kwariani) is muscle who takes a seat at the track bar.
Johnny's plan was well constructed and ran like clockwork. In fact it was so precise, Kubrick stops using a linear narrative once it's in motion and jumps around in time as he follows the different members of the team individually during their assignments. Unfortunately for the men, as often happens, pride leads to the fall. There are three instances where the wrong choice is made and almost everyone suffers for it.
'The Killing' also runs like Swiss watch because of Kubrick's planning. The script is well paced. Not a scene feels like filler and the characters, though familiar to film noir, were believable as were the choices they made. The cast is made up of great character actors. It's a very entertaining piece of '50s film noir.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Killing' (#575 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is 20-page illustrated booklet containing Haden Guest's essay "Kubrick's Clockwork" and a short interview with Marie Windsor for the fall 1992 issue of "The Perfect Vision".
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.66:1. The liner notes state a "new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution from the original 35 mm camera negative."
Except for the print damage seen in race track footage during the opening title sequence, which may have been stock footage, the image looked clean throughout. This is due in part to restoration work done using MTI's DRS system, Pixel Farm's PFClean system, and Digital Vision's DVNR system. Blacks are inky and don't crush. Very good variation can be seen across the gray scale, leading to strong contrast and great shadow delineation. Fine textures can be seen, from details in faces, clothing, and even wrinkles on a cigarette. The film also exhibits good depth throughout.
Only a couple of minor negatives to report. A slight bit of aliasing is noticeable on George's jacket while he awaits Johnny's arrival with the loot. Some of the light sources within a scene are bright and cause banding.
The audio is available in English LPCM 1.0 and was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35 mm soundtrack print. The use of Pro Tools HD and AudioCube's integrated workstation has created a track that shows little signs of wear over time.
The mono track offers limited dynamics. Dialogue is clear and understandable, except Maurice on occasion but that's due to his Eastern European accent. A jazz score can be heard running underneath. Effects are probably the weakest element as their phoniness becomes evident on occasion like the talking parrot's voice or a gunshot that is pitched way to high. But they aren't all bad as planes can be heard flying overhead during the airport scene. The LFE doesn’t get much use.
Considering the hit or miss way MGM has been handling their catalog titles, Kubrick fans should rejoice that the Criterion Collection was able to license 'The Killing' and create such a fantastic release. It's a thrilling crime movie that has benefited from the digital restoration it received. The inclusion of 'Killer's Kiss' makes it a must-own for Kubrick fans.